Rethinking World War II

 

Churchill reviewing American troops

Peter Hitchens has come out with a new book, The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, that challenges much of the conventional wisdom surrounding Britain’s involvement in the unpleasant events of 1939-45. Here, he summarizes the book’s main arguments, most of which will be familiar to regular readers of Hitchens’ column and blog. For many other people, especially in Britain, I suspect some of these ideas will prove seriously unwelcome.

It seems that Hitchens is touching a third rail of politics with this book, which attempts to take an axe to some of the most cherished Anglo-American beliefs about the war. Here’s a sample:

MYTH 7: WE CAN THANK THE ‘SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP’

Hitler had well-founded suspicions that the USA, far from being a friend to this country, was hostile to and jealous of the British Empire. Indeed, the Anglo-American alliance refused to solidify as long as Britain still appeared to Americans as a selfish, mean and bullying Great Power quite capable of looking after itself. Attitudes began to change only when Britain, admitting it was running out of money, came to America’s doorstep as a penniless supplicant, offering America the chance to save the world.

The extraordinary (and all but unknown) transfer of Britain’s gold to the USA throughout 1939 and 1940 was the lasting proof that a deliberate, harsh British humiliation had to precede any real alliance. The stripping of Britain’s life savings was an enormous event.

Secret convoys of warships were hurrying across the Atlantic loaded down with Britain’s gold reserves and packed with stacks of negotiable paper securities, first to Canada and then to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where much of it still remains. It was not for safekeeping, but to pay for the war. Before Britain could become the USA’s pensioner, we had to prove we had nothing left to sell.

The ‘Lend-Lease’ system, which provided limited American material aid to Britain, was far from the act of selfless generosity Churchill proclaimed it to be. Even the Americans’ Bill had a gloating, anti-British tinge, given the number H.R. 1776 in reference to the year of the US Declaration of Independence.

The Destroyers for Bases Agreement, too, was quite grudging. It led to 50 decrepit American First World War destroyers being handed over in return for the USA obtaining bases in several British territories on the Western side of the Atlantic.

This shocking surrender of sovereignty indicates Britain was, piece by piece, handing naval and imperial supremacy to its former colony. It symbolises the true relationship between the USA and Britain in the post-Dunkirk months, as opposed to the sentimental fable still believed.

There’s much more in the linked piece. Hitchens has taken a lot of flak in the past for arguing that the British bombing of German population centers was unjustified, an issue that is revisited in the article. A lot of people find Hitchens’ viewpoint on this matter unpatriotic and disturbing because it undermines Britain’s moral standing in the war. This is of course a ridiculous non-argument, but the negative reaction is understandable. It’s very difficult for people to think objectively about events that are charged with personal or emotional significance, and this is especially true of World War II, which has loomed large in the imaginations of whole generations on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. By the way, I haven’t read the book yet, nor can I vouch for Hitchens’ arguments. All I can say is that Hitchens is a serious writer and thinker and I expect his treatment of the topic to be very interesting as well as controversial. History is complicated and our understanding of past events is fragmentary and distorted, full of yawning gaps and risible falsehoods. There is no reason to believe that history’s greatest conflict would be an exception to this rule.

Going medieval on them

review of the Catholic Church’s historical attitudes towards clerical sexual abuse indicates that the popes of the Middle Ages had far less of a sense of humor about the issue than their modern counterparts:

The early Roman Empire tolerated the sexual abuse of slave children, but the Church never did, and from the time of the Council of Elvira in 306 CE it was regarded not only as a sin punishable in the next life, but as a crime punishable in this one.

St. Basil of Caesarea, in his fourth century monastic rule, decreed that a monk who abused boys should be publicly whipped, his head shaved, he be spat upon and kept in prison for six months in chains on a diet of bread and water, and after release to be always subject to supervision, and kept out of contact with young people. This stricture was repeated in the canonical collections right through the Middle Ages.

The Church also adopted the secular law as laid down by the Emperor as part of its own canon law, because it regarded the Emperor’s power as coming from God. […]

All of that changed in 1917 when the first Code of Canon Law repealed those seven papal and Council decrees. Henceforth, the Church would deal with the problem as a purely canonical crime with no involvement of the State, and where the maximum punishment under canon law was dismissal from the priesthood. There are a number of explanations for this radical change of policy, including anti-clericalism in some countries, the idea of the Church as “a perfect society,” of the priest as a superior being blessed by God, and the invention of radio.

In 1922, Pope Pius XI issued his instruction Crimen Solliciationis that imposed the secret of the Holy Office on all information about clergy sexual abuse of children. The penalty for breach of the secret was automatic excommunication from the Church. That policy of the strictest secrecy has been confirmed or expanded by every pope since. It is still there in Article 30 of Pope John Paul II’s 2001 decree Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, as revised by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, with the only dispensation being that granted in 2010 to allow reporting to the civil authorities where the civil law requires it.

The rot has been spreading in the Church for a long time.

The widening vortex

That Richelieu feeling

In light of the swirling chaos in the Middle East, which will most likely be intensified by today’s strange “punitive” bombing of Syria, it’s instructive to consider how another great religious and ethnic conflict played out in Europe:

The Thirty Years’ War started in May 1618 when the Protestant Estates of Bohemia revolted against the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. They threw his envoys out of the windows of the palace at Prague. Fortunately for them, the moat into which they fell was filled with rubbish and nobody was killed.

Had the revolt remained local, it would have been suppressed fairly quickly. As, in fact, it was in 1620 when the Habsburgs and their allies won the Battle of the White Mountain. Instead it expanded and expanded. […]

The similarities with the current war in Syria are obvious and chilling. This war, too, started with a revolt against an oppressive ruler and his regime. One who, however nasty he might be, at any rate had kept things more or less under control. […]

With so many interests, native and foreign, involved, a way out does not seem in sight. Nor can the outcome be foreseen any more than that of the Thirty Years’ War could be four years after the beginning of the conflict, i.e. 1622. In fact there is good reason to believe that the hostilities have just begun. Additional players such as Lebanon and Jordan may well be drawn in. That in turn will almost certainly bring in Israel as well. […]

As of the present, the greatest losers are going to be Syria and Iraq. Neither really exists any longer as organized entities, and neither seems to have a future as such an entity. The greatest winner is going to be Iran. Playing the role once reserved for Richelieu, the great 17th century French statesman, the Mullahs are watching the entire vast area from the Persian Gulf to Latakia on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean turn into a maelstrom of conflicting interests they can play with. Nor are they at all sorry to see Turks and Kurds kill each other to their hearts’ contents.

It’s mildly reassuring that US Defense Secretary Mattis is calling this missile strike a “one-time shot” (for now), but I don’t think anybody believes that we’ve seen the end of US military involvement in Syria. To the contrary, it has probably only just begun — and nobody knows when or how it will end, and at what cost.

The End of History fails to arrive in Spain

It seems we’ll have to wait a bit longer for the End of History:

Spain’s King Felipe intervened dramatically Tuesday in the crisis over Catalan leaders’ bid for independence, accusing them of threatening the country’s stability and urging the state to defend “constitutional order.”

The 49-year-old king abandoned his previously measured tone over tensions with Catalonia as the standoff dragged the country into its deepest political crisis in decades.

He spoke after hundreds of thousands of Catalans rallied in fury at violence by police against voters during a banned referendum on independence for their region on Sunday.

Catalan regional leaders held the vote in defiance of the national government which brands it illegal — as did Felipe on Tuesday.

“With their irresponsible conduct they could put at risk the economic and social stability of Catalonia and all of Spain,” he said of the Catalan leadership.

“They have placed themselves totally outside the law and democracy,” he said.

“It is the responsibility of the legitimate state powers to ensure constitutional order.”

[…]

Pictures of police beating unarmed Catalan voters with batons and dragging some by the hair during Sunday’s ballots drew international criticism.

Catalan regional leader Carles Puigdemont said nearly 900 people had received medical attention on Sunday, though local authorities confirmed a total of 92 injured. Four were hospitalised, two in serious condition.

The national government said more than 400 police officers were hurt.

A king intervenes in a standoff between separatists and a nominally democratic government that is trying, and failing, to bring them to heel… in Western Europe. Not quite what universal liberal democracy was supposed to look like.

Speaking of which, I somehow doubt this is what the inventors of the World Wide Web had in mind:

The world’s first internet war has begun, in Catalonia, as the people and government use it to organize an independence referendum on Sunday and Spanish intelligence attacks, freezing telecommunications links, occupying telecoms buildings, censors 100s of sites, protocols etc.

Spanish police raided the offices of the .cat domain registry in Barcelona, seizing all computers

The .cat domain was used for sharing information about last week’s Catalan independence referendum

More.

Self-inflicted decline

It’s generally a bad idea for major world powers to nurse 178-year-long grudges against foreigners, but it’s especially dumb to do so when your historical problems are largely self-inflicted:

There is little argument that 1,000 years ago, during the Northern Song dynasty, China was the most prosperous country in the world, richer than all the countries of Europe.

But, by the 19th century when the Opium War occurred, China was the sick man of Asia. How did it happen? Many believed it was the industrial revolution that propelled the West ahead of China.

But a recent paper casts a new light on this topic. The paper was written by three scholars, Stephen Broadberry of Oxford University, Hanhui Guan of Peking University and David Daokui Li of Tsinghua University.

They focused on GDP per capita, a new approach, and found that Chinese GDP per capita fluctuated at a high level during the Northern Song and Ming dynasties before trending downwards during the Qing dynasty. China’s slide downhill lasted for centuries.

In the abstract of their paper, the scholars state that “China led the world in living standards during the Northern Song dynasty, but had fallen behind Italy by 1300.” That is to say, the zenith of China’s glory was short-lived.

What this study shows is that China had begun a long process of decline since before the Ming dynasty, a process that continued for 600 to 700 years before the West appeared on the scene. That is to say, China’s decline was due to internal factors and began very early, in the 13th century.

National decline status: well underway

20 years later

Hong Kong was handed over to the People’s Republic of China 20 years ago (July 1, 1997). This has occasioned much commentary among China-watchers. The NY Times ran a good piece by Keith Bradsher marking the anniversary:

When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule two decades ago, the city was seen as a model of what China might one day become: prosperous, modern, international, with the broad protections of the rule of law.

There was anxiety about how such a place could survive in authoritarian China. But even after Beijing began encroaching on this former British colony’s freedoms, its reputation as one of the best-managed cities in Asia endured.

The trains ran on time. Crime and taxes were low. The skyline dazzled with ever taller buildings.

Those are still true. Yet as the 20th anniversary of the handover approaches on Saturday, the perception of Hong Kong as something special — a vibrant crossroads of East and West that China may want to emulate — is fading fast.

Never-ending disputes between the city’s Beijing-backed leadership and the pro-democracy opposition have crippled the government’s ability to make difficult decisions and complete important construction projects.

Caught between rival modes of rule — Beijing’s dictates and the demands of local residents — the authorities have allowed problems to fester, including an affordable-housing crisis, a troubled education system and a delayed high-speed rail line.

Many say the fight over Hong Kong’s political future has paralyzed it, and perhaps doomed it to decline. As a result, the city is increasingly held up not as a model of China’s future but as a cautionary tale — for Beijing and its allies, of the perils of democracy, and for the opposition, of the perils of authoritarianism.

Hong Kong is still an incredible place, but my own sense is that the city is locked in terminal decline, for the reasons Bradsher talks about. This chart is relevant:

Of course, it was both inevitable and desirable that Hong Kong would lose some of its relative economic clout as mainland China built itself up into the world’s second-largest economy. But the mainland’s newfound wealth also allows China to assert control over Hong Kong by buying everything in it. And the city’s liberties are gradually being stripped away as its new overlords wield an increasingly heavy hand.

It’s not really surprising, and there’s nothing the rest of the world can do about it. But there it is. Anyway, here are some photos I’ve taken in Hong Kong over the years:

Blast from the past: Low-tech cheating

Originally posted Oct 26, 2013

China began the practice of selecting government officials through the imperial civil service exam in the early seventh century. This system lasted more or less continuously for 1,400 years. During much of that history, the exam tested candidates on their ability, among other things, to memorize insane quantities of classical texts. The stakes were daunting: success opened the door to lucrative, high-status public office; but after years of expensive test prep, the average candidate had a maybe five percent chance of passing the grueling provincial level exam.

Under these conditions, its hardly surprising that cheating flourished. In the face of strict policing and the threat of draconian punishments, dishonest examinees over the centuries tried almost every conceivable technique of trickery and fraud. The results were sometimes amazingly elaborate:

The sheer volume of knowledge required to succeed in the Imperial examinations elevated cheating to something of an art form in China. Miniature books were devised to be concealed in the palm of a hand; shirts had important passages from the Confucian Classics sewn, in miniscule lettering, to their insides; fans were constructed with pass-notes on their obverse. Other duplicities included hiring veteran scholars to sit the exams in ones stead, and the simple expedient of copying a neighbour in the exam hall. At certain times, bribery of examiners was commonplace.

– Justin Crozier, “A unique experiment.” From the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding’s China in Focus magazine (2002)

(Source)

In 2009, Chinese researchers discovered two tiny booklets dating from the Qing Dynasty designed to be smuggled into exam halls. One of them, slightly larger than a matchbox, contains 32 million characters of text.

It was amusing to see similar items on display in the museum under the Tengwang Pavilion in Nanchang. The labels aren’t very descriptive, but you get the idea:

Fortunately, China has put all that nonsense behind it. The imperial exam system was abolished in 1905. Today, instead of a rigorous, high-stakes national exam that holds the key to lucrative and prestigious government jobs, China has, well, a rigorous, high-stakes national exam that holds the key to social mobility.* And instead of miniature books and garments covered with hundreds of thousands of characters, the more unscrupulous exam-takers of today use wireless earpieces and pen scanners.

*Though perhaps decreasingly so.

Rome: Power & Glory

This (you can also find it on YouTube) is a very good documentary series on the Roman Empire. Entertaining and covers a lot of ground. It’s well-written and well-made, and even the cheesy clips from the old gladiator movie somehow enhance the atmosphere.

Prepare for war, since evidently you have found peace intolerable. -Scipio Africanus to Hannibal